Often when there is discussion about the importance of Christians helping the poor, critics often bring up concerns about the welfare of people’s souls, essentially saying that we should focus more on sharing the Gospel and not worry about people’s physical needs, as they are temporary and mortal instead of eternal.
I agree that we should be concerned with people’s souls. We should be concerned for their salvation. We should be interested in not only meeting a temporary need, but in meeting an eternal need. Some Christian ministries are accused of engaging in humanitarian efforts without also sharing the Gospel as they go. I wouldn’t say that such organizations are bad, however I do share the concern for the centrality of the Gospel in all we should do. And yet, when I hear this concern being brought up, it has all too often been a way of polarizing the entire discussion. It implies that we can do either/or. We can help with people’s physical needs, OR we can share the Gospel. This “false dichotomy”, or polarized way of looking at things is not helpful, nor biblical.
There is a similar discussion in the Scriptures.
James 2:14-18, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
Basically, some people were ignoring the idea of works or deeds as having any value. They thought of it in terms of having either faith OR deeds. And since our salvation is through faith alone, they rejected the value of deeds. It became polarized. It was a false dichotomy. It is not faith OR deeds, it should be faith AND deeds.
James refused to let them polarize the issue, but insisted that our faith should be shown by our deeds. It is our deeds that bring credibility to our faith. They demonstrate our faith. They validate our faith. They do not replace our faith, or take the place of the faith that saves us, but they are the way we are to show our faith. Helping the poor through “deeds” brings credibility to the Gospel and to ourselves, because it reveals that we are concerned about the things that concern our Lord and it reveals that we are concerned about the people that our Lord is concerned about.
I believe that we should be evangelical, in the sense that we should spread the good news of Jesus everywhere we go. And it is good news! I believe in the centrality of the Gospel in our mission, but I also believe that our faith should be accompanied by our deeds. I do not think it should ever be a matter of sharing the Gospel OR helping to meet a physical need. The two should go hand in hand. Let us not polarize the issue; let us refuse to give in to this either/or mentality, but rather embrace both truths, let us stand in the tension created by them, and move forward in our mission to be Christ’s ambassadors in this world.